By Bart Greenberg~~~”Too hip, too soon:”: So Rex Reed described the woman of the hour, the singer Sylvia Syms, at the third evening of the 27th New York Cabaret Convention, Thursday, October 20. A truly brilliant cast of singers paid tribute to this difficult, warm-hearted, infuriating and brilliant artist. Beginning with host Reed, the performers present who knew her described Syms (1917-1992) as everyone’s Jewish grandmother, a destroyer of pianists/ accompanists, a diva who gave away everything she earned.
Barbara Carroll recalled playing piano for her on Syms’ first recording at a session that began after her own late-night gig………..at 2:00 a.m. with a terribly out-of-tune piano.
KT Sullivan, who introduced the evening, recalled meeting her at the 92nd Street Y, a Lyrics & Lyricists evening which Reed recalled as going terribly wrong when Gloria DeHaven fainted in the wings. And Daryl Sherman offered up the story of her first meeting with the singer, which didn’t go very well, but somehow led to a life-long friendship. Guest Marti Stevens also offered warm memories with “Mad About the Boy.”
But, of course, the music is what made the evening great. The first act was devoted to the range of genres that attracted Syms. From ballads by Maud Hixson and Joyce Breach to comic numbers (especially those by the late Murray Grand), especially one deliciously delivered by Jay Leonhart, singing “I Always Say Hello to a Flower” (who, as bassist, also dueted thrillingly with Carroll), to obscure Broadway songs performed by Carol Woods (“Big Fat Heart”) and surprise guest Sally Mayes (“Pink Taffeta Sample, Size10”), to melodies that reflected her mutual admiration relationship with Frank Sinatra (Nicolas King and Tom Wopat) to songs that swing (Billy Stritch delivering a hot “Mountain Greenery” and Ann Hampton Callaway getting things hotter with a medley of numbers associated with Fats Waller).
And to wrap up the first half, “a woman who needs no introduction,” so said Reed who walked off the stage without uttering the name Marilyn Maye, who simply gave a master class in interpretation with “Fifty Percent.”
If the first act was great entertainment, the second went into the stratosphere. After a very sweet story from Reed about a birthday surprise that Syms gave him, the host ceded the stage to the singers, who, one after another, offered the great standards recorded by the lady of the hour. Beginning with a heartfelt “After You, Who?” offered by the young Hixson, a emotionally honest “It Amazes Me” by Stritch, a masterful “Skylark” by Callaway, and other gems such as “My Ship” (sung and played by Daryl Sherman) and “Here’s That Rainy Day” (performed by Nicolas King). A wonderful choice was to have each singer remain on stage after his or her solo, settling onto bar stools, building the electricity. By the time Maye returned to wrap up the evening, the excitement was off the charts. The only thing that could top this was a recording by Sylvia Syms herself, “I’ll See You Again,” demonstrating her perfect mastery of a song. The Convention, spearheaded by Mbel Mercer Foundation Artistic Director KT Sullivan (pictured here) concludes tonight, Friday, October 21, with salutes to Broadway songwriters Charles Strouse and Sheldon Harnick. see www.mabelmercer.org The venue/box office, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s fifth floor Rose Theater, is at Columbus Circle.
PERFORMANCE PHOTOS BY ERIC RUDY